Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi led an Iraqi delegation to Washington, DC, for a productive second stage of the US-Iraq Strategic Dialogue. Delegates representing Iraq and the United States agreed to a number of economic and energy deals and to the continued drawdown of US forces. They did not set a concrete timeline for the complete withdrawal of US forces from Iraq, a key demand of the Iranian regime and its Iraqi proxies. Iran’s proxy militia network in Iraq accelerated its campaigns of targeted assassinations of activists and improvised explosive device (IED) attacks on US-affiliated Iraqi contractors during Kadhimi’s Washington visit. Iran’s proxies likely intend to demonstrate Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi’s domestic weakness and inability to control Iraqi security or protect Iraq’s allies, undermining his domestic authority and global credibility.
Iraq Situation Report
Iran and its proxy network in Iraq escalated a kinetic campaign to build political pressure and attempt to force Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi to limit his support for the US force presence ahead of the next stage of the US-Iraq Strategic Dialogue. Likely Iranian proxy militants conducted five rocket attacks and five confirmed IED attacks on US facilities and supporting personnel in Iraq between August 12 and August 18. This pressure campaign culminated in an August 16 meeting in Baghdad between Kadhimi and Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps – Quds Force Commander Esmail Ghaani to discuss the Strategic Dialogue. Ghaani likely met with Kadhimi to punctuate attacks by Iran’s proxies and reiterate Iran’s demands for the expulsion of US troops. Kadhimi is unlikely to encourage the rapid withdrawal of US training and support; Iran’s proxies will likely retaliate for Kadhimi’s failure to quickly comply with the regime’s demands by applying continued political pressure from Iran-aligned Iraqi political factions.
Iran-aligned actors continue to resist Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi’s campaign to steadily implement his core promises to the Iraqi people. Kadhimi demonstrated tangible success in holding security forces accountable for unlawful violence against protesters by arresting members of the Iran-aligned Law Enforcement Forces (LEF) and removing the group’s commander. Kadhimi fulfilled another central promise by setting a date for early elections in June 2021, drawing backlash from entrenched political elites who fear losing their power base through free and fair elections. Kadhimi still faces an uphill battle to hold these elections; Iraq’s parliament must pass a new elections law, draw electoral districts, and approve new rules for the Supreme Federal Court before the elections can be held.
Iran’s Iraqi proxy militias are accelerating their campaign to constrain Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi’s attempts to reign in militias and reclaim Iraqi sovereignty.
Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi’s efforts to preserve Iraqi sovereignty by shifting its regional relationships away from Iranian domination have been met with a mix of successes and setbacks. The hospitalization of the King of Saudi Arabia forced Kadhimi to cancel his symbolically important first planned foreign visit to Saudi Arabia on July 20. Iran capitalized on the cancellation, dispatching its foreign minister in a pre-planned visit to Baghdad and then hosting Kadhimi in Tehran for meetings with Iran’s Supreme Leader as Kadhimi’s de facto first foreign trip. The United States continued to pressure Gulf countries to increase their energy cooperation with Iraq even as Prime Minister Kadhimi faced domestic and foreign resistance from neighboring Iran. Demonstrators are holding Kadhimi responsible for Iraq’s insufficient electricity supply, diluting his popular support. Continued criminal activity by Iran-backed groups, including the kidnapping of a German activist in Baghdad and repeated threats toward Iraqi allies, will also damage Kadhimi’s ability to secure buy-in from regional and global partners.
Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi’s political maneuverability is increasingly constrained by resistance from Iran’s militia proxies and from protesters demanding better government services. Kadhimi directed elite forces to retake border crossings, advancing his campaign to reclaim Iraq’s border crossings from Iranian-backed militias with limited success. These security operations have not resulted in arrests or the permanent ousting of any militia groups to date but do signal to the United States that Kadhimi is taking the most aggressive actions he can without triggering violent retaliation from Iran’s proxy militias. Meanwhile, mass demonstrations broke out across the Shi’a-majority south to protest a lack of electricity service provisions after a months-long, COVID-19-induced downturn. Kadhimi continues to pursue new energy partnerships with Iraq’s neighbors, especially Saudi Arabia, but will be unable to provide the immediate jump in electricity supplies needed to quell the protests.
Kata’ib Hezbollah (KH), a key Iranian proxy militia and US-designated terrorist group, is retaliating against Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi for launching a coordinated campaign to retake segments of the Iraqi state from entrenched political and militia corruption. KH, more than any other militia, is sending a series of violent messages to Kadhimi to force him to abandon his campaign. Masked gunmen, likely KH members, assassinated a prominent Iraqi analyst and ally to both the Kadhimi government and the US-led Coalition. The brazen assassination is the latest in a series of steps by KH against Kadhimi, including storming the Green Zone to compel the release of detained KH militants on June 26 and likely conducting the latest spate of rocket attacks on US facilities in Baghdad. The United States deployed a counter-rocket artillery and mortar (C-RAM) system to defend the US Embassy in Baghdad against rocket attacks, but KH interpreted the deployment of the system as a provocation and extension of Kadhimi’s campaign.
Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi began a coordinated campaign to retake segments of the Iraqi state from entrenched interests, build toward a state monopoly on use of force, and increase his negotiating position with the United States in the ongoing US-Iraq Strategic Dialogue. Kadhimi ordered Iraq’s elite, US-trained Counterterrorism Service (CTS) to retake Iraq’s border crossings from poorly regulated militias and to conduct a raid on key Iranian proxy militia and US-designated terrorist organization Kata’ib Hezbollah to prevent additional rocket attacks on US facilities in Iraq. These moves are intended to demonstrate to the United States that Kadhimi is a reliable security partner ahead of his planned visit to Washington in July, when Kadhimi will renegotiate the US-Iraqi relationship in the next stage of the Strategic Dialogue. Meanwhile, pro-Kadhimi parliamentarians announced the establishment of a new political bloc. This bloc could provide Kadhimi the political base he needs to weather the ongoing backlash against his bold moves, particularly from Iranian allies and proxies who have thoroughly penetrated the Iraqi state.
Converging challenges to the Iraqi state threaten to deny Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi the political support he needs to improve Iraq’s security and economy. Kadhimi must improve domestic stability in areas like service provision, fiscal policy, and security in order to secure leverage for the second round of the US-Iraq Strategic Dialogue scheduled for July 2020. Kadhimi is facing increasing anti-US attacks by Iran’s Iraqi proxies, a surge of COVID-19 cases, and increasing opposition to the financial reforms necessary to keep the Iraqi economy afloat. Iranian officials are pressuring Kadhimi in high level meetings to accept key Iranian demands that support Iran’s objectives in Iraq, such as purchasing essential goods inside Iraq with foreign currency to circumvent the US-imposed maximum pressure sanctions.
Recent Iranian proxy attacks represent a major test for Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi’s commitments to preserving Iraqi sovereignty and protecting US anti-ISIS forces. The attacks occurred at the start of the US-Iraq Strategic Dialogue, which aims to determine the future of US forces in Iraq. Iran’s Iraqi proxies intensified both their kinetic and political lines of effort to advance Iran’s key objective in the Dialogue: the rapid and complete expulsion of US forces from Iraq. Separately, Turkey also tested Kadhimi’s commitment to Iraqi sovereignty by launching a new, large-scale air campaign with 81 airstrikes on sites purportedly associated with the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) in northern Iraq, drawing harsh condemnations from Baghdad. Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) likely took advantage of the Turkish air campaign to also target Iranian Kurdish dissidents based in Iraq in what may have been a coordinated Turkish-Iranian operation.